Grenfell Tower blog: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2017/06/29/mark-olden/i-can-taste-the-smoke/
Here's my take on the largely forgotten tale of Francis 'Flossie' Forsyth. In this case - unlike that of Keslo Cochrane, who was murdered a year before - the police's will to act was unquestionable.
On November 10, 1960, Francis ’Flossie’ Forsyth saw his girlfriend Margaret Catlin for the last time. Margaret was 17 years-old and heavily pregnant with his child. They were separated by a glass screen in bare room in Wandsworth Prison.
“Francis kept laughing and joking,” she said afterwards. “He didn’t talk about tomorrow once. He asked me about the baby, whether I was going to keep it or not, I told him I would and he said: ‘Good’.”
The next day 18-year-old Forsyth and his 23-year-old accomplice Norman Harris were hanged for murdering Allan Jee, a trainee engineer “of impeccable character… who would be most unlikely in any circumstances to be provocative to anyone”, in the words of a policeman who investigated the case.
One night the previous June – bored, drunk and skint – they had ambushed Jee on a dark, deserted footpath in Hounslow, that drab fringe of west London where the city merges with the suburbs. Jee had spent the evening watching a film in Richmond with the fiancée he’d got engaged to the day before, and was 20 yards from home.
It was Flossie who administered the fatal blows, kicking Jee’s head and fracturing his skull with his winkle picker shoes, as Harris and two other accomplices (who were later jailed) scurried away.
“I only kicked him twice to keep him quiet,” Flossie told a policeman later. “I did not think I had hurt him that much. We did not want to roll anybody but we had a few shants [drinks] and I always get a bit garrotty [violent] then.”
As he was led from his cell Flossie wept and said, “I don’t want to die.” Three hours later, Margaret Catlin received a telegram: “Always remember my star will watch over you both and give you the love and strength you so richly deserve my angel yours till eternity.” It was signed ‘Sloss’ - a mis-print of Floss. “I will not be afraid to bring up my child and tell it about its father even though he was hanged as a murderer,” Margaret told the Daily Express.
Few protested against the young men’s lot, despite the growing clamour against the death penalty. “It was such a brutal crime that these lads don’t seem to have won any sympathy,” said an old lady among the handful of demonstrators outside Wandsworth Prison on the morning they were executed.
Unlike Derek Bentley or Ruth Ellis, hanged in the same era and whose stories live on in films and books, the wretched tale of Forsyth and Harris is consigned to fading news clippings – although Flossie occupies a macabre footnote in the history of capital punishment as the last teenager hanged in England. Yet 56 years on, vivid memories of him – and the traumatic events which cut short three young lives – survive.
Brian Pease was 23 years old in 1958 and recently demobbed from the RAF when he started work as a relief housemaster at Ardale Approved School, an Essex borstal. Flossie, who was in there for shop-breaking, was among the first residents to introduce himself.
One day, stricken with the flu, Pease fell asleep on duty. Flossie woke him, took him to his room, made sure he was okay, and then occupied the other boys with table tennis. “I found him to be a very pleasant young man,” Pease recalls.
He read about his execution in the paper. “I remember thinking ‘Good God’. This was someone I knew and respected.” The case strengthened his hostility to the death penalty – which he has remained implacably opposed to ever since. “Those were the days of National Service, and that might have helped him change his life around. What a waste of a young man.”
Sheila Catton was 16-years-old and working in a shoe shop on Hounslow High Street when Flossie, who she knew from the area, walked in on June 28, 1960 - three days after the murder. Her recollections today differ slightly from those in her police statement (which is preserved in the National Archives).
“I was desperate to get away for lunch when Flossie came in. I sold him a pair of shoes and he asked if I could get rid of the ones he was wearing, so I carted them out the back. They had a stain on them but I didn’t think anything of it until the police came a few days later.” She never knew if the police retrieved them.
The proximity of the murder – 300 yards from her home, by a park she went to almost daily – and involving people she knew, means the case has never left her. Yet then, as now, she thinks Flossie got what he deserved. “I still believe in the death penalty,” she says. “It was a cowardly and completely unprovoked attack.”
How The Times reported the case
The case’s hold over the imaginations of those who knew Flossie is also clear on an internet forum where fragments of social history and morbid curiosity collide.
Among wistful memories of long gone youth (tearing out the cinema seats after watching Rock Around the Clock) and laments for a Hounslow “that was never the same after the murder” (and which now, according to one contributor, is “a shithole… the worst arguament [sic] for multiculturalism ever”), views on Flossie and his fate are split sharply.
“He was a likeable, funny, intelligent guy,” writes a friend from Ardale.
“If anyone needed a mentor it was Flossie,” another contemporary says. “Whenever I think about him it is with deep personal regret that I did not show him that he really had got his priorities all wrong.”
For one old schoolmate, Flossie was warped beyond salvation: “Once in a while someone either truly exceptional, or rotten, turns up. You see it in nature. A beautiful flower pushes itself out of a field of weeds. In the alternative a huge ugly weed can grow quickly out of a well-tended garden… For whatever reason, Forsyth was at the wrong end, and ever would be. He left nothing but trouble and anguish in his wake.
He was rotten to the core. He cared nothing about hurting others. He’s not missed, other than to pique our interest as to why he was the way he was. I’m glad he’s well out of the way.”
What of Margaret, Flossie’s heavily-pregnant 17-year-old girlfriend, who he promised to look over for eternity, and who, in turn, reportedly said she would bring up their child with full knowledge of his infamy?
Seven weeks after Flossie was hanged, she gave birth to a girl. The father’s name is absent on the birth certificate. A note says that the child was given up for adoption.
Four years later Margaret married, and now lives in a rural market town in the south of England.
Crashing into the life of someone who was totally blameless for terrible events many years ago is loaded with sensitivities - so I make my approach with caution. After a tentative letter, I give Margaret a call. She denies any knowledge of the case and puts the phone down abruptly.
How she views what happened almost 60 years ago, and whether Flossie’s daughter ever learned of the torrid circumstances surrounding her entry into the world, understandably enough, are not for public consumption.
Copyright, Mark Olden 2016
A new report by Harmit Athwal and Dr Jon Burnett of the Institute of Race Relations, analyses the criminal justice system's response to the deaths of the 93 people who've lost their lives in racially motivated attacks in the UK since Stephen Lawrence's murder.
Kelso Cochrane has been added to the updated ODNB, which details the lives of men and women who shaped British history from the 13th to the 21st centuries:
With Carnival looming, here's an old article on how its 1959 forerunner was founded from the embers of racial violence by the Trinidadian activist Claudia Jones.
August 29, 2008, The Independent
As darkness fell and the Notting Hill Carnival drew to a close last Monday, Europe's largest street party descended into mayhem. For more than two hours a mob of around 40 young men fought running battles with police on the streets of west London. The roots of the violence may have been different, but the images of flying bricks and bottles, of broken glass and other debris, evoked memories of 50 years ago.
Back in August 1958, Notting Hill had been seething with violence all summer. Then, the west London neighbourhood was a place of grimy streets and decrepit, overcrowded tenements, a far cry from the chi-chi neighbourhood it is today. The Saturday before the area finally exploded, nine white youths had embarked on what one of them called a "nigger hunting expedition" around Notting Hill. They were armed with iron bars, blocks of wood, an air pistol and a knife. By the time they'd finished, five black men were in hospital, three in a grave condition...
It's said that to understand one feud in Notting Dale, you have to know about the ten feuds before it. This is born out by the trail of violence that ended in the death of 21-year-old Billy Smith: shot in his back as he ran towards his aunt's house in Latimer Road, W10, on May 9, 1960.
Many of those interviewed by the police about Kelso's murder a year before were also questioned about Billy Smith 's death, and the links between the cases are explored in Murder in Notting Hill.
Billy's unofficial stepfather, Bill Cousins (below) was among those swept up in the violence that night. His name raises a smile among those still around to remember him.
The Sunday Times and its intrepid reporter Michael Gillard recently won an epic libel battle against the major East End criminal David Hunt. The paper's July 7 leader put the victory in context:
LIFTING THE LID ON THE PROFESSION OF VIOLENCE
The death last month of that fine actor James Gandolfini brought into play yet again the myth that organised crime has a romantic face - that it is not an obscenely profitable blight on society but consists of ageing bruisers who are a danger only to themselves and each other. Mr Gandolfini's Tony Soprano bears some resemblance to David Hunt, who this newspaper unmasked as a powerful and feared criminal. He sued us for libel, but our verdict on his character was upheld last week. Like Mr Soprano, Mr Hunt lives in luxury and cares about his family. Unlike Mr Soprano, he has no need for drink, drugs or psychiatry to alleviate the stress of criminality. As a former associate put it: "He just created so much fear because he would do all his villainy sober."
Nor has he confined his violence to other criminals. Peter Wilson, a courageous reporter, told the libel trial that when he had the temerity to ask Mr Hunt about his alleged involvement in a double murder, "the speed and aggression of Mr Hunt was something that was quite bewildering ... He grabbed me by the lapels. He whacked me with his head straight into my orbit [eye socket], shook me round like a rag doll, swore at me and dropped me." When the libel trial began, the bodyguards protecting our witnesses withdrew after one day. Another renowned security firm refused to step into the breach. Such is the fear that Mr Hunt's name engenders.
Yet when seven years ago another courageous man, Detective Chief Inspector David McKelvey, set out to find evidence that would bring Mr Hunt to justice, he was warned off by his superiors. The target was "too dangerous", the detective was told, pursuing him would tie up resources, organised crime was not a policing priority in Newham, the east London borough that was Mr Hunt's centre of operations, street crime was more important. When the chief inspector persisted - having argued that "Hunt has evaded justice over many years by corrupting police and the judicial system" - his career in the force was destroyed.
Mr Hunt, in the judgment of Mr Justice Simon who tried his libel complaint, has been involved in fraud, prostitution, money laundering and "extreme violence". Previously confidential documents produced at the trial revealed that the police and other crime fighting agencies have been well aware of his activities for many years. Yet it has taken extremely brave witnesses, including a persistent investigative reporter, Michael Gillard, to bring these facts before the public.
It has been a high stakes legal battle. This newspaper has needed deep pockets to fill the vacuum left by those who should have taken on Mr Hunt long ago. We have not shied from the task, just as in the past we took on the distributors of thalidomide and the quartermaster general of the Provisional IRA. It is now time for others to take action.
May 7, 2013, 5.30 - 7.30pm, North Kensington Library.
Cathi Unsworth, author of Bad Penny Blues, Tom Vague of the Community History Project, and I will be discussing Oswald Mosley's last-ditch effort to revive his political career in Notting Hill in 1959, the year of Kelso Cochrane's murder.
The event is free but booking is required. To reserve a place, visit North Kensington Library in person, or call Kensington and Chelsea libraries on 020 7361 3010.
Photo: Monty Strikes, Harare, 2007
It's a far cry from Notting Hill, but the death of a remarkable man in Zimbabwe this week couldn't pass without comment. I was privileged to have met John Makumbe, aka the White Man from Buhera, and honoured to write an obituary for him:
Professor John Makumbe, who has died aged 63, overcame the stigma of albinism to become a fearless critic of Robert Mugabe and a key figure in Zimbabwe’s civil society.
5:31PM GMT 29 Jan 2013
In May 2003 Zimbabwean police broke up a peaceful meeting of civic and religious leaders at a church in a Harare suburb, beating and arresting those present. One of them was the political science lecturer John Makumbe, who arrived late and was detained as he entered the building.
After three days in jail he was released, and the following morning attended a press conference. “Look at my face” he said cheerfully. It was bruised, battered and swollen. “I am a rainbow nation all in one. Black, white, yellow, red, purple. It is all here.” The response was typical of a man who could find pithy humour in the most trying circumstances.
Throughout Zimbabwe’s long fall into political turmoil, Makumbe remained one of President Mugabe’s and the ruling Zanu-PF party’s most eloquent and implacable foes. He was chairman of the local chapter of the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International and a founder of both the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition and the National Constitutional Assembly, bodies campaigning for democracy and human rights in a land where they were vanishing fast.
Once, briefing a group of Peers during a visit to London, he invited them to visit Zimbabwe to see the situation for themselves. “Won’t we be arrested or deported?” asked one of them. That was the point, Makumbe responded. Despite the risk to his own safety, he never sought sanctuary abroad. “I am a Zimbabwean,” he said. “This is my home. This is where my family is. If I leave, there are still 12 million people here. What about them?”
John Mudiwa Washe Makumbe was born on May 6 1949 in rural Buhera, 140 miles south-east of Salisbury (now Harare), Southern Rhodesia. Seeing that he was an albino, the midwife tried to throttle him at birth, assuming, he later explained, that because of his pale skin his mother must have been having an affair with a white missionary.
Fortunately, his parents were free of the widespread prejudice that albinos were cursed and their condition infectious, and instilled in him the belief that — despite facing a life of being shunned — being an albino should never hold him back. “I had a tough time growing up,” he told an interviewer. “I was insulted, harassed and tortured by my peers at school and during play. But I fought back. When I became a Christian in 1969 I began to forgive all those who tormented me because of my God-given condition.”
When his future wife Virginia accepted his marriage proposal, her mother was initially so distressed that she threatened suicide, and approved of the marriage only after a year. But before she died, she told her son-in-law she was happy she had relented as he was such a valued member of the family. In 1996 Makumbe founded the Zimbabwe Albino Association (ZIMAS), which helped dispel the myths surrounding the condition in Zimbabwe.
By then, following time spent studying in Botswana, Birmingham and Tasmania (the last on a Commonwealth Scholarship), Makumbe was a well-established academic at the University of Zimbabwe and the author of numerous papers on governance and democracy. His initial hopes for Zanu-PF following Independence in 1980 had long been dashed, and he was an early dissenting voice against the regime, working with Margaret Dongo, a former guerrilla and Zanu-PF MP who ended up challenging the Mugabe government.
No matter how sensitive or controversial the story, Makumbe was never afraid to be quoted, but that was not enough for some. Two American television crews told Andrew Meldrum, a journalist then based in Harare, that Makumbe was too unattractive to appear on screen. “Can’t you find somebody else who says the same things but is not so visually challenging for our viewers?” a correspondent asked the shocked Meldrum.
Last November Makumbe announced that he was taking a sabbatical from teaching to stand as a candidate in his home district of Buhera West for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in this year’s parliamentary elections, and was working for the party as a constitutional adviser. “There are various ways of emancipating Zimbabwe from the tyrannical system of government we have endured under Zanu-PF,” he told an interviewer. “You can either make noise from your white castle or you can put on your boots and overalls and fight for the emancipation of the country.”
He is survived by his wife and their three children.
John Makumbe, born May 6 1949, died January 27 2013
Johnny's message to his friends on his 76th birthday
Johnny Edgecombe obituary
Keeler's ex-lover, he fired the shots that set off the Profumo affair
On a clear December morning in 1962, Johnny Edgecombe, who has died aged 77, fired six shots at the central London mews flat where his ex-lover Christine Keeler was staying. In doing so, he set off a chain of events that altered not just his life, but British history. The resulting Profumo affair heralded the fall of Harold Macmillan's Tory government, and with it a substantial erosion of the deference shown to the upper classes.
Edgecombe, a smalltime hustler and jazz promoter from Antigua, met the 20-year-old Keeler through a mutual friend in September 1962. They soon became lovers. Keeler had already had affairs with the war secretary, John Profumo, and the Russian naval attache and spy Yevgeny Ivanov, whom she had met through her mentor, the society osteopath Stephen Ward. She had recently also had an entanglement with another West Indian, Lucky Gordon, but was on the run from him after he had briefly held her captive. She enlisted Edgecombe for protection, and gave him a Luger pistol that she had acquired for the purpose.
When Edgecombe showed up in a taxi at Ward's flat at 17 Wimpole Mews in Marylebone, she refused to see him and threw a £1 note out of the window for the cab fare. After failing to shoulder-charge the door open, he fired five shots at the lock and a sixth at the wall above. Keeler told the police investigating the shooting about Profumo and Ivanov, and rumours were soon swirling among MPs and the press.
These intensified when she fled to Spain to avoid giving evidence at Edgecombe's Old Bailey trial, and on 15 March 1963 he was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life.
A week later Profumo denied in parliament any "impropriety whatever" in his relations with Keeler, but on 5 June he admitted lying and resigned. As the press revelled in wild tales of high-society scandal and political cover-ups, Edgecombe started serving a sentence that he always viewed as unjust. The idea of a black man sleeping with a white woman who was also sleeping with a government minister was too much for the times, he maintained.
Edgecombe was born the last of eight children to a seafaring family in St John's, Antigua. His father, who owned a two-mast schooner and had a woman in every port, would take him on his trips transporting gasoline to Trinidad, leaving him in a bar while he conducted his business. Johnny's sole ambition was to be a sailor like his dad, and when the latter disappeared to New York, he stowed away on a ship to try to join him, getting caught en route and locked up in the county jail in Galveston, Texas.
In 1949 Edgecombe arrived in Liverpool, carrying his belongings in a paper bag. He ended up in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, shooting craps on the street corner, mixing with hustlers and hookers. Moving to London, he survived by legal and illegal means: posing as an African prince in an expensive jewellers while his accomplices attempted to steal rings (he got caught, receiving three months in a young person's prison), operating a shebeen in a Notting Hill property owned by the slum landlord Peter Rachman, and driving stars such as Count Basie around in his "jazz mobile".
After he was released from prison for the shooting, he became a successful jazz promoter, running a club called Edges, and later worked as a television and film extra.
The Profumo affair shadowed him – as it did all the main protagonists – for the rest of his life, and he was unhappy with his portrayal in the 1989 film Scandal. In 2002 he wrote his own account of the affair, Black Scandal, and at the time of his death was trying to interest publishers in a fictionalised version of his hustling days, entitled Calypso Train.
After being diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year, Edgecombe added another catchphrase to his already long list: "I want to get high till I die." In early August, he dragged himself from his hospital bed for a party in his honour, held by family and friends at a London pub. As the jazz ensemble played, he knocked back the Guinness, and he stayed till the end. The diversity in age, race and class of those present mirrored another of his mottoes: "I am not a black man. I am a man who is black."
He is survived by his daughters, Camilla and Yasmin from his former wife Vibeke Filtenborg, and Melody, from his former partner Jane Jones.
• John Arthur Alexander Edgecombe, jazz promoter, born 22 October 1932; died 26 September 2010
The Guardian, Thursday 30 September 2010 18.23 BST